“Anybody know who won?” the guy asks.
I’m on the 4 train minutes after last night’s game, and if you’re reading this I don’t have to tell you what game. Whether you were there among 50,000 or so of us who aged about 30 years and melted off 15 pounds or so at Yankee Stadium — not the new Stadium for me anymore, but finally the Stadium — whether you were there with us or watching at home on television or in a car somewhere on some dark highway listening with the dash radio on, you know what game I’m talking about.
And here the guy comes aboard the jammed train afterward, pushes in just over to my right, and asks who won.
We turn our wiped out faces his way. He’s maybe in his late 50s with neatly trimmed gray hair, and though he’s all casual in a tee shirt and jeans tonight, you get the sense that away from the ballpark he’s an exec at some mega-corporation or a heavy-hitter courtroom lawyer, some kind of big shot anyway.
Anybody know? It’s a sucker’s gag. But we’ve all spent the past four and a half hours getting our souls squeezed out of us into that wild, crackling, exhilarating, enervating storm of emotional energy that surrounded the Stadium. We are juiced oranges there in that packed subway car. We fall for it.
“Just kidding ,” he says with a chuckle after getting our attention.
And everybody laughs or gives him one of those you-got-me-buddy grins.
“You’ve got my permission to kill him,” says the guy on my opposite side, who I think might be his friend.
I shake my head to let him know I’m too tired for murder. “I’ll have to do it another time,” I say. “Just don’t have enough strength for it right now.”
The guy nods. “I know what you mean,” he says. “Geez, what a game.”
What a game, is right. I’ve been at some great ones, but don’t remember being at a better one.
If you were there, you felt it from the first ninety-plus-mile-an-hour strike Burnett threw. And you heard it in the cheers and the smacking of hands around you. I’m talking about the hunger. This crowd was hungry in a way they haven’t been for years, believes in this team in a way they haven’t believed for years, just like this hungry Yankees team believes in itself.
I remember that hunger before 1996. But sometime during the dynasty years, we started taking things a little too much for granted. By 2001, we’d been so well fed with winning, were so stuffed with it, that we figured even what happened there in Arizona was a tough luck fluke.
And then in 2002, with Tino and O’Neal gone, and Bernie getting older, and the pitching getting iffier, and the parade of stars coming in, and finally the Angels knocking the Yanks out of the postseason just like that, we were reminded good things don’t last forever, and got to wondering somewhere in our minds if the Yankees team we were watching wasn’t the Yankees team we believed in anymore. Still, though we’d dined well on success for a while — four world championships in five years — we told ourselves another good portion would have to come soon.
We were kidding ourselves.
The team had changed, and something else had changed too. I remember being at the World Series in 2003 days after the great Game 7, the Aaron Boone homer Game 7. All around me, everywhere in the stands, there were people you never saw at the Stadium during the regular season. People sitting around in their seats like they were at a Broadway play or the opera or something. I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t know why those people who didn’t seem to know or care anything about the game were getting tickets to it. I didn’t know why the faces I saw around me all throughout the regular season mostly weren’t there, and I still don’t. But too many of them didn’t get in. And too many bodies in the seats seemed like they were there because it was the place to be rather than because it was somewhere they wanted to be. Seemed like they would have rather spent the night at a restaurant dining lobster claws than feasting on a win.
The Marlins noticed it when they came in. After the first game, some of their players chattered how playing at Yankee Stadium wasn’t a big deal. The crowd wasn’t so loud, nothing about it was too intimidating. They couldn’t figure out what the fuss was all about. Yankee Stadium didn’t have any edge.
The Marlins won that World Series. And then in 2004 the Red Sox came in and won the bad Game 7 in the second round of the playoffs. And after that — even though somebody in the Yanks organization must have wised up and started getting tickets back into the hands of real fans again — after that, there were all those early exits from October baseball, all those Yankees teams that never really felt altogether like teams, those teams we wanted to love but just couldn’t. Postseason games didn’t seem the same as they’d used to be. Or they didn’t to me, anyway. Something was missing. A spark, maybe. A swagger. Something.
And then last season October didn’t even happen. All we had at the end was Derek Jeter’s graceful goodbye to a dear old friend, which was something, at least. But it didn’t make the Yanks’ melancholy September exit any easier to take.
The fans were hungry again. We’d been hungry for a while. We’d learned our lesson, been reminded winning wasn’t so easy after all. But we had an uneasy feeling maybe the team wasn’t as starved for the big, oven-stuffing World Series prize as we were.
And then we were given this 2009 team. And slowly, almost reluctantly, we started to believe they wanted it. That they were going after it. We still kept our expectations in check. You get burned enough, you don’t extend your faith that easily.
Last night at Yankee Stadium, in that up and down, tilt-a-whirl nailbiter of an 11-inning thrill ride, the Yanks took us on with the help of a Minnesota Twins team that wouldn’t quit, just like the home team wouldn’t quit; they earned our belief .
I look for pivotal moments, and I have to go back to that ninth inning. Yanks down 3-1. Joe Nathan, one of the best closers in the game on the mound. He’s got to face Teixeira, Rodriguez and Matsui. Three guys you’d want him to be facing in that spot. Except Tex hasn’t had a hit in the series, he’s looked a little tight, and it is the ninth inning. There aren’t many outs left.
We’re all standing and cheering up there in the stands. We have fallen for this team and poured everything we’ve got into rooting for them all night. But we are withholding just a little bit of our hearts so they won’t be broken.
When Teixeira hits the single, some big lunk is standing in the aisle next to my seat, bumping into me every couple of seconds and getting on my nerves. I’m like 5-foot-7 and 150 pounds, and he’s like, 6’3 and 450 pounds, and I’m way, way too tense to put up with his big fat elbow in my side. Why won’t he just go back wherever he belongs?
And into the batter’s box steps the great Rodriguez and hoists one into the energy field over the park, out to deep, deep center where it will finally return to earth in a place of no return, and the score is tied, and the night is roaring. And I look at the lunk, and he looks at me, and then we’re hugging each other, jumping up and down in the aisle and slapping each others’ backs like we’ve been best friends our entire lives and one or the other or both of us just became a daddy. I see hands up everywhere, above me, below me, everywhere, waiting to be high-fived.
That wasn’t the end of course. We all saw or heard the game from somewhere and know it wasn’t the end of it. We thought it was won in the 10th after Gardner made his crazy steal of third with one out, but had the air taken out of us when Damon hit into that hard luck double play. We thought it was lost in the 11th after Damaso Marte gave up consecutive hits to the only two batters he was supposed to get out, and then David Robertson, the 24-year old rookie who just a few weeks ago looked like he might be done for the year, comes in and gives up a single to load the bases with no outs.
And the kid gets out of it without surrendering a run.
Think about it. Postseason, extra innings bases loaded. Game on the line.
The kid came through. And then so did Mark Teixeira, four pitches into the bottom of the inning, with the walkoff homer that made the Stadium explode.
Hungry fans, hungry team. It was a hungry man’s feast.
“That was their baptism,” somebody said to me on the train home. He was talking about Teixeira and Rodriguez in the ninth, but might as well have been talking about this 2009 team.
What happened Friday night in Game 2 of the Division series doesn’t mean the Yanks can’t be beaten. Anybody can. But it means that win or lose, they are going to give the winning everything they have, play any kind of game they need to, do whatever it takes to feed the appetite for a championship shared by Yankees fans and players alike. If this team goes down in October or November, they are going to go down hard.
Man, though, it must be getting tough to bet against them.